I begin this morning by sharing a personal story from years ago, when I was a graduate student working for my Master’s in Philosophy. This was back in the early 1990s, which was a time when my relationship with my Dad was strained, and strange. Once in a blue moon, when we would speak, he would ask me about how my studies in Psychology were going, and I would correct him. “It’s Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy,” I would say, but he would keep on making the same mistake every time we talked. 

I had let him down by not going to medical school, which was his dream for me. 

He stopped paying much attention to my career, after that. 

What’s for sure is that I couldn’t afford to forget what I was about. Graduate school was pressure-filled. The Master’s program in Philosophy at Texas A&M University was absolutely new and still finding itself and maybe that’s why they threw their students into the deep end of teaching undergraduate classes. Just a year before I had been the student; one year later I was the professor. I had to fake it till I could make it. I learned as I went. 

It was intense. 

But even more intense was the need to identify a Master’s thesis topic and get to work writing it. Part of the problem was that the Texas A&M Philosophy Department at the time was a national leader in Classical American Philosophy and featured world-renowned scholars of Charles Pierce, William James, John Dewey, and also this guy I had never heard about before but I would soon enough: George Santayana. There were so many possibilities to pursue! It was all interesting! But I needed to get my act together. I needed to identify a specific topic to focus on, and quick. 

What was it going to be? 

What happened next is that I allowed ambition to solve the problem for me. I just didn’t know how to listen to my life and discern my genuine interests. I just didn’t have the skills back then. 

But I could feel ambition and the direction it suggested I take. I came to learn that achieving a Ph. D. in American Philosophy at Vanderbilt University would get attention and be distinctive, and so I had stars in my eyes about this. And it just so happened that the Head of the Texas A&M Philosophy Department at the time had strong links to Vanderbilt. A plan thus unfolded in my prestige-addled brain: I would choose a topic that would require me to work with the Head, and this would be my ticket into the Ph. D. department of my dreams. 

What ensued was a year of sheer pain. The topic that would require me to work with the Head was the ethical theory of George Santayana. BOOORing! I ended up hating it, and by the time I finished that Master’s thesis, I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. 

As for my relationship with the Head: UGH. We were just not temperamentally suited for each other. Rather than moving me forward into my career as a philosopher, it set me back. 

Worst of all is the 20/20 hindsight I have now, many years later, about the treasure that was right there before me, all along, which I did not claim. This treasure: the world-renowned William James scholar who also taught at Texas A&M, Professor John McDermott. William James is one of my absolutely favorite thinkers in all the world, and I could have done my Master’s thesis on him. The thought had actually crossed my mind, but among other things, I suspected that the world-renowned scholar was too busy for me. Yet I never even inquired to find out if this were so. 

I missed my chance. 

And that’s my story, and I offer it as I do all my personal stories, so as to provoke you to remember and tell your own stories, and for us all to know that we are all “spiritual beings having a human experience,” we are all in this thing together. 

How easily it can happen. Ambition can put stars in our eyes, and we lose touch with who we are. Fixation on some end goal can cause us to stop paying attention to the journey, never mind enjoying it. Fear of being turned down can keep us simply from asking. Treasure is within our grasp, but we don’t go ahead and grasp it. 

Years later, I would come across a paragraph from writer Elizabeth Gilbert, and I underlined it and also highlighted it because, really, I wanted to inscribe it on my heart. It’s from her bestseller entitled Eat Pray Love. She says, “I keep remembering a simple idea my friend Darcey told me once–that all the sorrow and all the trouble of this world are caused by unhappy people. Not only in the big global Hitler-’n’-Stalin picture, but also on the smallest personal level.” Gilbert continues: “Even in my own life, I can see exactly where my episodes of unhappiness have brought suffering or distress or (at the very least) inconvenience to those around me. The search for contentment is, therefore, nor merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people.” 

Just listen to the ideas that pop: 

  • Unhappiness as a source of sorrow and trouble for others and for oneself
  • The search for contentment as not selfish at all, but a form of service to others
  • “Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way.”

Elizabeth Gilbert thus introduces us to what is a key spiritual discipline. Facing your misery and clearing it out. Getting out of the way. Which is simultaneously the search for contentment. What she calls “Diligent Joy.” 

We’re talking about Diligent Joy today.

And notice especially that Diligent Joy takes no “spiritual bypasses.” It does not bypass the hard stuff, the shadow stuff. Because the only way out is through. 

So we begin by taking a close look at ambition and the desire for prestige, which played such a big role in my personal story of misery and maybe it has for you, too. 

Psychologists tell us that the desire is natural. We must know this and I need to know this, as I look back at the young man I was. Desire for Vanderbilts of every kind reflect a deep impulse shaped by millions of years of natural selection, directed towards winning at the game of life; and it involves impressing others, gaining their admiration, and rising in relative rank. We all feel tempted to do this even when greater authentic happiness can be found elsewhere. Political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli recognized this hundreds of years ago when he said, “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.” 

Conspicuous consumption is one specific example of this—and I am particularly struck by an experiment a group of economists set up using a beverage called SoBe Adrenaline Rush, and what the results say about human nature. The story here is told by Ori and Rom Brafman in their book entitled Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior: Apparently, SoBe Adrenaline Rush is supposed to increase mental acuity, and the scientific experiment revolves around this. “To test acuity, the researchers developed a thirty-minute word jumble challenge that was administered to three groups of students. The first group, a control group, took the test without drinking any SoBe. The second group was told about the intelligence-enhancing properties of SoBe, given the drink, and asked to watch a video while the tonic had time to take effect. These students also were required to sign an authorization form allowing the researchers to charge $2.89 to their university account…. Let’s call this second group of students the ‘fancy-schmancy SoBe’ drinkers. Finally, a third group of students was given the same spiel about SoBe but was told that the university had gotten a discount and that they would be charged eighty-nine cents for the drink. We’ll call this third group the ‘cheapo SoBe’ drinkers. Now, the results of the experiment were surprising. The group that drank the fancy-schmancy SoBe performed slightly better in the test than did the group that received no SoBe at all. But before we rush out to buy SoBe, with its acuity-enhancing powers, it’s important to note that the students who drank the cheapo SoBe performed significantly worse than either the fancy-schmancy group or the SoBe-free control group. Given that exactly the same SoBe beverage was served to both groups, we can only conclude that it was the value the students attributed to the SoBe that made the difference in their test scores. Strange as it may sound, fancy-schmancy SoBe made the students smarter, while cheapo SoBe hindered their performance.” And that’s the story that Ori and Rom Brafman tell. The moral: Humans are deeply susceptible to the power of prestige—so much so that we unconsciously, instinctively respond to fancy-schmancy SoBe by getting smarter and to cheapo SoBe by getting dumber. This is how vulnerable we are to the lure of prestige, and Vanderbilts of all kinds. 

Just knowing this is medicine. If you, like me, have made choices that caused you and others hurt, because you followed the lure of prestige, well, it means you are only human. There is a nature in you and in me that is millions of years in the making, and it has gravity to it, it can pull us right along with it unless we draw on the power of awareness to recognize what is happening and to choose whether or not to comply.

Again and again, we learn that the human heart is a complicated thing, and may we embrace this with compassion. 

But there is more medicine to be had here, which takes the form of a warning. If you try to take shortcuts to prestige; if you go the “cheapo SoBe” route; if you want the luxury purse but buy the pleather knock-off instead—beware. Your deep self—which is unconscious–will never be fooled. And that deep self may strike back in some self-undermining way, as it did the “cheapo SoBe” drinkers in the experiment. 

Placebo effects are real and significant and not to be dismissed. 

It just means that if something is truly and sincerely important for you, you must honor it with full generosity. If you skimp, even if all the world is none the wiser, your deep self knows, and there will be consequences. 

Keep this in mind as we enter into our annual pledge drive, which we will formally kick off at the end of this month. If this church is truly important for you, there is only one way, really: to give until you feel good. 

But now we turn to a different angle on “Diligent Joy”—how we can create misery for ourselves because we can be wildly inaccurate predictors of how life changes end up impacting us, whether for good or ill. 

In my own case, I anticipated going to Vanderbilt for my Ph.D. as a change that would bring about perfect happiness; but life would be over if I didn’t get in. This is what I predicted, and on this basis, I forced myself to read yucky George Santayana and write that yucky 200+ page thesis. I forced myself because I thought that so much was at stake. All of us can do this, as we face the future. Yet psychologist Jonathan Haidt, writing in his provocative and powerful book entitled The Happiness Hypothesis, asks us to consider something he calls the “adaptation principle.” The “adaptation principle” is simply this: that people get used to conditions that are constant in their life. Conditions that are constant in life become like wallpaper: taken for granted, just there. Yes, people are extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but after a time, when things settle down, we return to our usual state of happiness. 

Jonathan Haidt explores this in an interesting way. He asks, “If I gave you ten seconds to name the very best and very worst things that could ever happen to you, you might well come up with these: winning a 20-million dollar lottery jackpot and becoming paralyzed from the neck down. Winning the lottery would bring freedom from so many cares and limitations; it would enable you to pursue your dreams, help others, and live in comfort…. Losing the use of your body, on the other hand, would bring more limitations than life in prison. You’d have to give up on nearly all your goals and dreams, forget about sex, and depend on other people for help with eating and bathroom functions. Many people think they would rather be dead than paraplegic. But they are mistaken.” They are mistaken, Jonathan Haidt says, because of the adaptation principle. “The [lottery] winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth, not from standing still at a high level, and after a few months the new comforts have become the new baseline of daily life. The winner takes them for granted and has no way to rise even further. Even worse: the money might damage her relationships. Friends, relatives, swindlers, and sobbing strangers swarm around lottery winners, suing them, sucking up to them, demanding a share of the wealth. […] At the other extreme, the quadriplegic takes a huge happiness loss up front. He thinks his life is over, and it hurts to give up everything he once hoped for. But like the lottery winner, his mind is sensitive more to changes than to absolute levels, so after a few months he has begun adapting to his new situation and is setting more modest goals. He discovers that physical therapy can expand his abilities. He has nowhere to go but up.”

This is the adaptation principle at work. Life changes can definitely bring pleasure or pain, but the pain or pleasure never lasts as long as you think it will, and we return to our natural and usual state of mind. 

I didn’t get in to Vanderbilt; OK, there was some weeping and gnashing of the teeth for a time; but then I got on with my life. My prediction about the impact of not getting in was way off base. I adapted, and moved on. 

Maybe this is why meditation is so powerful a spiritual practice. Meditation is nothing special. You just sit, and perhaps attend to your breath—breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out—you stay attuned to that most simple of all human functions until your attention strays, and when you realize that, you just gently bring yourself back to your breathing, and this is decidedly neither winning the lottery, nor experiencing some bad accident, but life at its most baseline and simple. And, can we be at peace with this? Can we tolerate the simple peace of this? The more we can be at peace when things are even keel, and we are in a state of adaptation—that’s the real ticket to increasing our capacity to be happy. 

Jonathan Haidt’s thought experiment is important because it reminds us that it is human nature to adapt to conditions that are constant in life. The pathway there may be ecstatic or traumatic, but once you get there, you adapt. 

But it’s also important in suggesting that, if you want to increase your capacity for happiness, you don’t have win the lottery. Just sit with yourself, in meditation. Learn to allow peace to happen. One of the most important things I learned during my sabbatical in 2013 was walking, walking in the way that our Transcendentalist ancestors taught, walking and allowing the simple rhythms to soothe me, walking to allow the sights of nature to enter into me, walking that was unambitious and simple and …. peace-filled. 

That truly made me a happier person.  

It was also on those walks that I remembered some things I had long forgotten. One story in particular. I was seven, and I was with my Dad in the garage, and he asked me to do something mechanical in nature. I went to it with my small hands, I had never done it before, and I guess I was too clumsy or too slow or something, but my Dad got impatient with me and slapped my hands away and did it himself. I will never forget the feel of his medical school ring on my knuckles, hard and painful. 

One day, this story emerged out of the peace of my walk. The peace of my walk made it safe for this hurtful story to surface. And it taught me yet another reason why I have been so urgent to reach for success in my life, to prove myself by such things as getting a Ph. D. at Vanderbilt. 

There can be no spiritual bypasses when we do the work of Diligent Joy. 

I needed to remember and honor that young boy who lives in me still, who is caught in a time-loop where his Dad gives him an assignment, he doesn’t do it to his Dad’s satisfaction, his hands get slapped away, the hard slap of that medical school ring on his knuckles. This is the time-loop the boy in me is caught in, and the situation happens again and again and again.

Bad things have happened to all of us. No one can change what happened. But what I can do is remember the pain of that young boy and how it can surface when I am feeling anxious about succeeding, or scared of making a mistake. What I can do is recognize these feelings as old. What I can do is enter into that relentless endless time-loop and disrupt it with my love for that boy and compassion for my Dad and whatever led him to do what he did. What I can do is honor my inner child’s need which is my adult need to take all the time I require to learn something, to tolerate being bad at something so that, eventually, through lots of practice, I can be good. 

This, too, is Diligent Joy. To know your deep parts, to gather them up in understanding and love. 

How you treat yourself is how you will treat others. 

Let me tell you the rest of my Vanderbilt story.

After I finished my thesis and defended it successfully, a week before I was to have graduated, I got a call from the community college across town, Blinn College. Would I like to teach a logic class? All my future plans were up in smoke, so why not. I took to that field, I gave myself to daily labor, and to the round of the seasons. One class grew into three; three grew into five and a full-time permanent position; but most importantly, I discovered my passion for public speaking and teaching, and I realized that, for me, philosophy of religion was my thing.  

I was discovering my happiness; and it was also happening at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I started going to, with my now ex-wife Laura, together with our daughter. I took to that field, and I gave myself to various opportunities that arose. I served as President of the Board of Trustees; I led some fundraising programs; I led some worship services and taught a few religious education courses. Through volunteerism, I was discovering talents that I didn’t know I had. And, I was also making friends. 

Which led me to the third activity which helped me recover after the Vanderbilt disaster. Figure skating. Down in College Station, Texas, at the Unitarian Church, I met my future ice-dancing partner. It all came as quite a shock. Part of this has to do with the fact that, when I met Diane in 1996, I hadn’t skated since I was a boy of 13, and last I knew, serious figure skating was just for children and teenagers. Yet what I did not know was that, during my many years away from the sport, a significant adult skating program had developed, including regional, national, and international competitions. Diane knew all about it—and did I want to go skating with her? At first I resisted—one excuse after another came to mind—but Diane and Laura kept on prodding me, and so, eventually, I went. 

As it turns out, this was the final ingredient. I took to the field of teaching, I took to the field of church volunteerism, I took to the field of adult figure skating; and as I gave myself to all three activities, some kind of weird alchemy happened, and I found a clarity within me which I had never had before. I found a yearning to combine passion for public speaking and teaching and community building and leadership and artistry and spirituality all in one thing, and that thing was ministry. I would go to seminary. I would become a minister. That was the treasure I found, but only after giving myself to the opportunities that came my way, even though I had no clue where they would lead me. 

“I prayed for twenty years,” the great Frederick Douglass once said, “but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” The treasure is out there, but you have to let go of fixating on it. You have to let go of your imagination of what you think it is and just give yourself to the opportunities that come your way without requiring up front guarantees about what those opportunities might lead to. 

It’s about praying with our legs. 

And this time, I did not let fear stop me from talking to the people I needed to talk to, and doing the things I needed to do. I even turned down an offer to attend Harvard Divinity School—with generous funding—to go to a seminary that was way better suited to my family and me, though far less prestigious: Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

When one of my friends heard this, he sent me a funny postcard featuring a huge orange orangutan wearing one of those square academic caps with a tassel hanging down one side you wear when you graduate. The caption read: WHAT? You haven’t been to HARVARD?” 

I looked at that pretentious orangutan again and again and again.

I read the caption over and over.

WHAT? You haven’t been to HARVARD?”

WHAT? You haven’t been to HARVARD?”

I laughed so hard at that postcard, I cried. 

And I knew deep down, down deep: 

Not going to Harvard was truly OK by me.